Let me preface the following rant with the following, before I get into it in earnest: I, personally, do not really care about whether the Braves win the division. As I’ve said before, this is a hell of a team, and it’s no skin off my back that MLB has requested, and the MLBPA caved into, the current debacle of a playoff format where the September races are pretty much exclusively about playoff seeding rather than playoff berths. The Braves finishing with a top-four record in MLB is the real accomplishment, and the fact that the ridiculous playoff format seems to award specific benefits to some teams with a certain record, but not others, is their own problem, not mine. But, me aside, there are plenty of people that do care about playoff seeding, that do care about the division title and the likely first-round bye that comes with it, and it is on their behalf that I prepare to divulge the following geyser of salt.
Let’s be real: do the Braves, as an organization, care about winning the division? Oh, sure, the players care. No one can fairly impugn them, nor have they been able to all season. From the Michael Harris II-Dansby Swanson-Travis d’Arnaud sequence that cut down a run at the plate despite soggy baseballs and errant throws forcing a guy wearing catching gear to leap up and then plummet down to apply a tag, to Ronald Acuña Jr. punching through his most recent ailment to deliver a go-ahead hit, to Robbie Grossman making the most of his limited outfield range and taking away a hit on a dive, to Jackson Stephens absolutely balling out and throwing two frames of .500+ WPA ball to seal the win, the players are awesome. The roster is awesome. I’ll talk more about this later this week — this is the best, most well-rounded, most pump-your-first-in-the-air-worthy Braves team of their recent great run. Division champs or not, that won’t change. These guys rule.
But... could they get a little help? Just a tad, thanks. The Braves came into Sunday afternoon’s game trailing the Mets by 1.5 games in the division, thanks to a whole bunch of stuff that’s happened for five-and-a-half months, and most recently, a 6-2 win over the Phillies while the Mets somehow lost a Jacob deGrom start in Oakland. Sunday’s game, too, started promisingly, as the Braves struck for two in the top of the first. But then Charlie Morton starts scuffling right away, and.... and nothing. Morton blows both the tie and the lead in the first very inning, and... nada. The Braves battle back to tie it, but Morton allows a second homer in two trips to the plate to Kyle Schwarber. Dansby Swanson gets the best lick possible off Kyle Gibson when facing him for a third time, mashing a two-run homer to turn a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 lead, and the Braves, as they have done countless times over the past two years... completely ignore it, and let Morton, who has already given up two homers and a walk in 18 batters (not to mention striking out just four batters in the process), face Schwarber a third time?
Yes, this happened, and while the sequence that followed wasn’t entirely Morton’s fault, a walk-bloop double-sac fly-sac fly chain put the Braves back in a hole, again. I watch this, and again, on behalf of the folks that do care about playoff seeding, come back to the first question: do the Braves actually care about the division? Is it their first priority?
This goes beyond the prior bullpen usage arguments, where skipper Brian Snitker decried the idea of “chasing wins” by using his “best” relievers without a lead. (We all note, of course, that said decrying or not, those relievers have indeed been subsequently used without a lead, including in this very game!) This is more about the general idea that the Braves have a struggling-if-not-moribund starter on the mound, a guy who has already given up two homers to the opposing team’s leadoff hitter in this game, a one-run lead, and the league’s third-best bullpen... but still won’t pull that starter from the game. Why not? I have no idea.
We all make jokes about how the relievers’ arms will apparently fall off by July if starters are aggressively removed from games, but it hasn’t been July for months. (The jokes aren’t funny, but that’s showbiz, baby.) What exactly are we waiting for at this point? There were only ten games left in the regular season, and the Braves’ bullpen ranked 24th in innings pitched and 25th in batters faced. If you’re not going to pull a starter having a mediocre season after 18 batters into a bad game, with a one-run lead, with your team already carrying a 1.5-game deficit in the division with fewer than two weeks of regular season left, when will you? Only during the last few games of the season? Only the series with the Mets next weekend? Never?
We could go down the stats road, and I could fill paragraphs and tables with all sorts of numbers that gleefully dance in patterns that clearly argue in favor of some basic heuristics that could improve the team’s performance. I’ve done it before, it’s not hard to do. For whatever reason, that’s not a convincing argument, even though it should be. The Braves showed that earlier in this series by letting Jake Odorizzi, he of the nearly-unplayable second-time-through-the-order split, get ravaged by the Phillies. Okay, fine, you say, Odorizzi was up against Nola, let him and Tyler Matzek wear a blowout loss for the sake of resting the rest of the relief corps for the final stretch. But this game? A game in which the bats have already made some hay off Kyle Gibson, a game in which the Braves already had two separate leads?
In the end, this might not matter. See above, about the very good roster. This team hits well, and it hits bullpens very well (second-best xwOBA, fourth-best wOBA). It’ll bail you out, even against good bullpens, just like it did on Sunday. Is that validation? I’d hope we can be better than that, that we can avoid confusing because with in spite of. But maybe we can’t, and if we can’t, the bats will still hit late and the bullpen will still suppress runs and the tally in the win column will grow, because again, this is a very good roster. So, maybe it doesn’t matter. But it’s still a pain in both the physical and metaphysical necks to watch.
Because, we are watching. Baseball is in a weird place these days, and it has been for a while. As a spectator sport and an entertainment vehicle, its foundations were never complicated. You got some guys, we got some guys, let’s see who can put up the most runs after nine. For over a century, the price of admission, and of one’s time, has been laden with some tacit agreement that amounts to, “I am going to watch each of these groups of guys try their best to win the game.” At some point recently, when tight-fisted owners and canny, survival-oriented general manager types realized they could pull off a win-win for them (and not the fans) by fielding terrible teams on purpose, some of that tacit agreement leaked away, but the 2022 Braves aren’t a tanking team. People are buying tickets, paying for MLB.tv, or defeating seven pop-up ads per minute on various bootleg stream sites, because they’re expecting the Braves to use all of the resources at their disposal to win this game, and the next, and the next. They won’t always succeed, but they should always try, right? The players, you know they’re trying. There’s not a whiff of Melky Cabrera in the bunch. Is the in-game management trying? After Sunday’s game, I’m really, really not sure.
The relationship between the artist/entertainer, and the consumer of that art/entertainment is always a little fraught. It requires a little (or a lot of) self-annihilation on both sides. (Don’t believe me? I can feed you a truckload of song lyrics that are, at their heart, about this and nothing else.) The Braves can make it a little less fraught. With the division on the line, something that the organization presumably cares about, I don’t know why they won’t. But games like Sunday show they’re not quite there yet. Maybe one day.
So, for now, we’ll keep watching the organization bank on talent rather than tactics, maybe because in their internal calculus, worse tactics somehow relate to talent playing up, or maybe because... actually, I don’t have another, better explanation. Maybe you do, but maybe it’s better to leave that blank unfilled. And maybe one day, we’ll watch the organization bank on both, because it can. That’s a perfectly achievable outcome. But it wasn’t what we watched yesterday. Maybe today.